All I can do is pace. Step forward again, again, again, turn, swish. Step forward, again, again, again, again. It’s a warm June day and yet there’s the distinct feeling of black ice under the soles of my shoes.
I almost told Jacob all of it: About the Queen of Diamonds, about Conley, my poor uncle, my secured office space where I keep all my dangerous thinga-mabobs and notebooks, everything. It would have only taken a couple of seconds to crash down the years of secrets I’d been building.
The warmth and confidence of his arms around me unwound the seals I’d thought were so tightly fixed. Luckily, in the last moment, one single strand of strength fought through depths of my addled mind and shouted some clarity into the rest of my system: I couldn’t do this. I could not fall to pieces in some man’s arms like a cliche’, no matter how good a man it was. Now could not be the time to find out how understanding my friends were. And also, I wasn’t done. The Queen still had more to do. So I shook him off, put on a dainty smile and apologized for my outburst, which he of course said was fine. After some mumbled excuses, I quickly left the house. I’m sure they all assumed it was just from all the blood and stress. The convenient thing about protective men is they always assume the women they’re protecting need it.
What I actually needed was air, and maybe something safe and silent to spill my secret into. It was like tears after a hard slap or bad news- no matter what I did to hold it back, it was coming out. But who could I tell? My sister had already done so much for me; always the older, bigger one, she’d guarded me at every turn from high school bullies to my first heartbreak. She often joked that she was glad Conley had come along so she could take the occasional day off keeping an eye on me… little did she know, right?
I couldn’t call Uncle Julian. He was understandably still flustered over the fire, and even if he wasn’t, from what I heard, his life had been full of enough drama and trauma in his younger years. There was no reason to pile on that. Which meant Mom wasn’t an option either, since she was looking after Uncle Julian.
My feet took me back home to pace in relative privacy. Yet as I moved back and forth, the whole apartment felt fake. When I moved in after college, I hadn’t put much thought into my space, I was just glad it was close-ish to both my family and Conley’s headquarters. The real world still existed, so I soon got a real world job, as a paralegal with a nice firm, which was actually handy as I got to see up close the legal aftermath of the damage I caused after-hours. Within a year, they mistakenly trusted me enough that I was able to work from home, which was good for both checking in on my uncle and my more nefarious doings. And it also gave me an excuse put more time into the decor of my little home.
I bought framed etchings on the walls of scenes from the Canterbury Tales. Put up pictures of my old roommates at Halloween. I hung the grand tapestry my sister had sent me from her trip to Egypt. A caricature of Conley and Mattis at the Eye of London stood proudly on an end table. There were little tiger figurines hiding in the bookshelves. I’d adored the deep velvet pillows I’d found at a market sale. Crystals strung from windows. This time looking around, it felt off balance. I couldn’t decide if the deep purple and gold theme was mine or the Queen of Diamond’s. Had I chosen these curtains with or without her in mind? How long had I been her? Oh gods, was this spiraling?
This was not fresh air, this was not working. I wanted to go sit outside and scream at the sky, but had enough of that sanity left to know getting arrested for public lunacy would only further tangle my predicament.
If I could just stuff my face with something yummy. No, I couldn’t bare interacting with a person. It seemed very likely they’d ask “Will that be for here, or to go?” and I’d reply, “I’m the one that burnt Parliament to the ground. And I enjoyed it!”
Maybe… maybe Uncle Julian had one of his baking stashes back at his place. When he retired from his more formal painting schedule, he’d become quite the avid baker and I rarely saw his counter without a plate of lemon bars or snickerdoodles.
That feeling of emptiness took over. I felt like a teenager again as it engulfed me, like a wave over unsuspected sand domes.
I. Needed. Carbs.
I needed them to fill the empty parts of my heart.
Were they going to permanently fix the shattered places? No. Were they going to glue them together long enough for me to grasp back on to a shred of calm? Possibly.
So I forced a long slow breath in through my mouth, out through my nose, made my gate casual, popped in my earbuds, and made my way back to uncle’s apartment. To check on the fire damage. To ease the insurance company’s worries. For good reason. For a snack.
When I got up the many flights of stairs to the very top, proud of how well my workout regiment must be going but still sad the elevators were still under the firemen’s review, I noticed the door to my uncle’s apartment was cracked.
It could’ve been left like that by an innocent firefighter. Or maybe we left it like that after my mother and I gathered a few sets of clothes. Unlikely, yet possible. But after the day I’d had, no chance needed to be taken. Conley may not have caught on yet, but what if other heroes had? I quickly pulled the thin dagger from the waistband of my joggers and checked that the throwing darts in my sports bra were still in place. I didn’t have anything else on me, having been so out of sorts when I stopped by my apartment, and too nervous to go by my little office-lair yet. If there were more than just a couple people behind that door, I was going to have to do some major improvising.
I moved quickly, silently, slipping through the door, flying across the room. I had her flipped and pinned to the wall in a matter of seconds. One hand at her throat, the other pressing the dagger against her wrist so that she couldn’t yield her weapon which was a-
I blinked into blue eyes, crow feet surrounding them leading into a graying blond bun.
“Ah, so you’re Stew’s girl.”
I jumped back, flicking on the light by the kitchen counter, “Oh my gosh, Miss LeAnne, I’m so sorry,” I recognized her from the picture’s on Stew’s refrigerator and the few sketches in his notebooks, “I’m so sorry, I thought a robber was taking advantage of the fire and-“
“It’s okay sweetie, I’m a transplant from both Atlanta and New York, I understand.”
She was still standing against the wall, watching me. Her eyes tracing up and down my frame like a scan.
“I, uh, Uncle Stew needed some more clothes, and I wanted to check out the place.”
“Very sweet of you dear. I didn’t have such kind intentions. I just knew he probably left something tasty on the counter when you all had to rush out.”
Now she moved, her eyes still pinned to me. The way she poured onto the tall chair at the counter reminded me that Uncle had mentioned she’d once been a very successful dancer.
I laughed, forcing myself to relax a bit, “Yeah, I’ll admit that was an encouragement.” I took a scone myself. God, raspberry and white chocolate. Uncle was amazing. I downed it quickly and reached for another. Casually I asked, “Why were you sneaking in the dark, Miss LeAnne?”
She grinned, “I guess I was afraid there was someone with sharp knives around…”
She continued, “I wanted to check before I turned on the lights.”
I coughed up the crumb that had lodged itself in my throat, “I am so sorry about that, Miss LeAnne.”
“Just LeAnne, sweetie. And it’s fine! I would have done the same thing. I’m so pleased Stew has someone so talented lookin’ after him. He’s a good man.”
I nodded, “He is, thank you. He speaks so highly of you, too. I think you’re his best friend. I’m surprised we haven’t met before.”
She twirled with a pearl stud in her ear, “Until recently, my job kept me very busy. Hopefully I’ll be around a bit more often. Maybe I can take some Stew-shifts off your hand.”
I was on my third scone, “Oh, I love spending time with him. But I’m sure he would love a break from hearing about my troubles. He probably gets tired of playing baker-therapist for me.”
“Ha! Oh doll we are too alike, he’s sewed me back together literally and metaphorically so many times! And here we are thinking we’re taking care of him!”
“That’s the truth!”
I laughed with her, and it felt so nice. Just a moment, in Uncle’s beautiful penthouse covered in art, laughing over scones with another lady. It was a salve.
“Alright, time to spill. I’ll play therapist tonight, young lady. I can’t bake, but I do know where your uncle keeps a wine stash.”
I couldn’t hide my shock, “Mom said he quit drinking over a decade ago.”
“He did,” she pulled the top off an ottoman, clicked something, pulled up another layer, and then pulled out a bottle of red wine, “but he also said that I could keep what I needed here for emergencies. So I do. This feels like an emergency.”
She had no idea.
I framed it all like boy problems. Turned war into romance, which was easier than it should be. Still got my point across about feeling betrayed and confused, and she nodded along and refilled my glass as the sun went down through the glass of the patio french doors. When the bottle was empty, she stumbled over to the coffee table, clicked something under it, and another wine bottle popped out! Then she began to tell me about all her adventurous travels of the world. She and her girlfriends had seen the Catacombs of Paris, Queen Anne’s Ice Palace in Russia, had served as scribe maidens in the Scotland’s National Book Town festival, and so many more.
And when that bottle was empty, she sent me to his armoire and instructed me how to pull a little lever on the side and a secret bottom would pop open in the middle drawer. I found another bottle of red wine, an extensive first aid kit, and a notebook. I pocketed the notebook for later, and closed the drawer, bringing the bottle back.
“There’s a good girl, old women like me can’t keep walking around on flimsy feet for the third bottle,” Her speech slightly slurred but she didn’t spill a drop as she refilled our glasses, “Now tell me again why you and Mr. Jacob don’t just run away from this whole mess and live happily ever after.”
I felt the heat rise through my cheeks, “Am I that transparent, LeAnne?”
“You are now!” She roared with laughter, and I had to catch her from tipping off her stool.
When she leaned back forward, I saw her eyes were as brightly sober as mine.
“Alright, LeAnne. What’s your deal?”
“You’re good, kid. I even spiked the second bottle.”
“You wanna fight first?”
“No, because we both know I’d kill you, and that would upset my uncle. I meant it when I said you were his best friend.”
“Second only to you.”
“Which is why we should get along. So I ask again, what’s your deal, LeAnne?”
“You’ve got some good ideas, young lady, but what you need,” she paused, took another sip, and then smirked in a strange way that made her wrinkles disappear, “is a henchman. I’m retired from my old gig, but still very good at what I do. You’re right you can take me, but you’re a feisty one and these old bones still got a lot left in them. And I also happen to be awfully bored.”
“Now why would you think I need henchman? I’m just an innocent girl with a nine to five.”
“Sure. And I’m a toadstool with a stick up my ass.”
I took my first actually long swallow of wine for the night. That feeling of ice under my feet had returned, and I needed to remain in control.
“There are plenty of organizations that could keep you occupied in your retirement. Why would you want to work with… someone of questionable circumstances.”
“You’re riding a star upwards, sugar, that much is clear. And if that’s for the betterment of womankind, I’m perked ears. You gonna take a man down along the way? Ain’t no better to have to in your corner than me an’ my friends.”
Take Conley down? That wasn’t the goal. But to have even closest cohorts think that was the goal would keep the secret safest.
“And what do expect in return? I do occasionally rob a bank, so I’m happy to split that up, but that’s not exactly the objective.”
“My girls and I are mostly looking for action. And like I said, the upward movement of gals like you. Plus, if we both continue to keep Stew clean and clear out of all of this, I’m happy. I owe him several life times of favors.”
I nodded, understanding how much cost the favor of a loved one really carried.
“So you and your ‘friends’? Are they answering to you or to me?”
“They’ll answer to me, I answer to you. We’re picky but loyal. And if you’ar who I think you are, we’ve got reason to sign allegiance…”
She was finally asking me to reveal my identity. To say it out loud, seal the contract with trust.
My identity. Wasn’t this supposed to be the other way around? I take the mask off and say the name on my driver’s license? But here I was, not even any mascara, and when asked of who I really was…
“I’m the Queen of Diamonds.”
“Then it is a honor, your majesty.”
Chrysalis (noun): 1. A quiescent insect pupa, especially of a butterfly or moth. 2. The hard outer case enclosing a chrysalis. 3. A transitional state.
Butterflies? But that is a Spring thing! Why discuss them in December? You ask. Because I said so! And our argument is simply an assumption of my imagination and thus I win every time! But, I’ll explain myself anyway 🙂
I kept coming back to the word Evolution, but for our growing queen that wasn’t quite right yet, and the above story wasn’t quite right yet, and I haven’t felt quite right for the past several weeks (who has? this year has been hard for many). So as I was writing, and our main lady is realizing all her pieces aren’t quite put together as well as she thought, I was reminded of the chrysalis. And this is what inspired me to put the rest of today’s tale in place and set her back on her path.
You see, the cool thing (or one of) about butterflies/moths entering the Pupa stage where they’re in this cool casing, is that they become completely undone. They’re goo; there is nothing recognizable about what they were before they entered this arena. And then of course they exit and they have these cool wing things and fly around WEEEEE flap flap flap. BUT. What scientists have discovered is that they have memories from when they were caterpillars. Can you imagine? Becoming COMPLETELY UNDONE. Unrecognizable to people who weren’t watching closely. Nothing like you once were, but still holding on to the few things that mattered from before?!
Why yes… yes I think many of us can.
And I think our Queen here is just… lost in the goo (ew, gross metaphor) but still holding on to the parts that matter. And it’s understandably frightening to realize you’re not like you once were, and to look forward and realize you still don’t know what’s coming but the process is in full swing now, baby! All you can do is keep growing.
This time of year when it gets dark, I can get really down. But then little inspirations like this lift me up and I’m reminded that this part of the season is a lot like Spring. It’s a time for growth. Not the bursting forth that we see in the flowers of May, but in the resting and recovering that slow times can bring. In the letting ourselves wrap up into our blanket chrysalis with hot chocolate and look back over the year and see what parts we’re going to keep as we move forward. Maybe that’s all too deep for a story about a lady who’s building rocket launchers while eating raspberry scones but… it’s what I’m thinking about today 🙂
I hope all you readers are doing well in your goo (ew, I did it again), and I look forward to seeing your beaaaautiful wings! Happy reading!